Sunday, June 05, 2016

ALI: The Soul of a Butterfly

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., June 5, 2016—On the first Saturday in May, the city of Louisville celebrated its world famous, iconic horse race for the 145th time.

On the first Saturday in June, it mourned its world famous, iconic hometown hero, Muhammad Ali.

Both are timeless.

There will be millions of words written or spoken this week about his accomplishments as prelude to a funeral procession and services Friday morning in his hometown.

If you’re a millennial wanting to learn about the man, you’ll find everything there is to know online. A unique individual, his life was shaped by the era in which he lived.

We are of the same generation, and like many people my age, you had a love/hate relationship with the man born as Cassius Marcellus Clay.

*“There’s something happening here,
What it is ain’t exactly clear…

Born in the early ‘40s, both of us came of age in the late 60s. I saw Clay fight in the old Madison Square Garden from the only seats I could afford.

Before there were Friday Night Lights there were Friday Night Fights, viewed in my home on a 12” black-and-white Philco television set.

There they were: Graziano and Marciano; Jersey Joe Wolcott--who refereed at least one of the titanic battles Ali had with Smokin’ Joe Frazier; the rivalry between

Carmine Basilio and Gene Fullmer, like that of Sugar Ray Robinson and Raging Bull Jake LaMotta.

Boxing was mainstream then and very popular, just like horse racing was.

I wasn’t skilled in the art of “the sweet science.” I watched the Friday Night Fights with my parents and it was my father who took me to my first live fight at the old Sunnyside Gardens Arena.

Known as the ‘Golden Gloves’, sponsored by the New York Daily News, the bouts were for young amateurs and it used a tournament format. It was one of the few avenues of success open to low income youngsters who couldn’t afford college, even at $30 per credit.

If you matriculated through the school of hard knocks, you eventually made it to the big ring on 50th Street and Eighth Ave. in Manhattan, site of the old Madison Square Garden.

When I finally made the trek from Queens to “The World’s Most Famous Arena," it was apparent even from the cheap seats that Cassius Clay was something special. No boxer ever looked like he did, fought like he did.

It was a turbulent time, the 60s, and the country was changing by the day, like it is today. And by the end of the decade I was like most other college kids; all for peace, love and rock ‘n roll, loving the one I was with whenever possible.

Like my peers, I hated the Vietnam War: It was difficult if not impossible to embrace nationalism while suffering from a severe case of the munchies.

Because I wore my hair shoulder length didn’t mean that I didn’t love my country. And when the most famous boxer of all time converted to Islam and conscientiously objected to the war, refusing to serve his country, I turned on him.

I think it's time we stop, children, what's that sound,
Everybody look what's going down…

When Kent State happened, my anger shifted away from Ali and toward the government. I bitched and moaned from the safety of St. John’s’ student lounge. My big contribution to ‘the movement’ was joining a campus protest in support of lay teachers seeking tenure from the university.

What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side

Ali didn’t bitch and moan; he acted. A man of conviction, he gave up three prime career years because he “had no argument” with the people of North Vietnam. He refused induction. Disgraced, he was stripped of his heavyweight championship title.

The Viet Cong were killing people my age and seeing caskets on TV draped in American flags, sitting on tarmacs all over America filled me with rage. Yet when I watched live war video, the image that made the greatest impression was seeing the havoc wrecked by our flame-throwers and napalm.

I was conflicted and I didn’t understand why: I was raised on John Wayne movies; watched “Sands of Iwo Jima” every time it was on. We were the good guys. World War II was just because the Axis nations that would dominate the world needed defeating.

It was a confusing time for young Americans. Ali was a polarizing symbol but he also made me aware for the first time that there were two Americas. Just like it is now, for reasons that are, at once, different but the same.

There's battle lines being drawn
Nobody's right if everybody's wrong

I came full circle on Ali at about the same time as everyone else: His incredible comebacks, the punishment he absorbed for the sake of a winning strategy.

Seeing replays of his fight with Sonny Liston when, in the fifth round, he fought blinded by some foreign substance supplied by the thug’s corner-men, and nearing the end of his prime, he defeated a younger, stronger George Foreman after Ali allowed the champion to punch himself out.

Upon his retirement, it was Ali’s humanitarian works that came to the fore, a path he chose to follow the rest of his life. I became a huge fan of the man who was truly transcendent now, the most recognizable face on the planet.

Before yesterday’s card at Churchill, the track paid tribute to its favorite son: Reading from a transcript, track announcer Travis Stone said in part:

“The Louisville-born, three-time heavyweight boxing champion, American legend and humanitarian was no stranger to Churchill Downs.

“Early in his career, he jogged over our one-mile dirt track to build fitness and he later visited our track to attend the Kentucky Derby… In his honor, please observe a moment of silence for our hometown icon, the Greatest of All Time, Muhammad Ali.”

Churchill’s iconic Twin Spires will glow red and black in honor of Louisville’s favorite son through Friday.

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you're always afraid…

For what it’s worth, there’s a line from Ali’s autobiography, Soul of a Butterfly, that have become words to live by:

“If you say you love God, you cannot say it if you don’t love all of God’s children.”


* Italics courtesy of Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame’s Buffalo Springfield: Richie Furay, Bruce Palmer, Stephen Stills, Neil Young, and the late Dewey Martin

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, May 29, 2016

Figs Don’t Lie: Canterbury and Pimlico Post Significant Gains

HALLANDALE BEACH, May 29, 2016—Long term, the jury on the takeout experiment at Canterbury Park will be sequestered for quite a long time.

But after reviewing the initial evidence, skeptics who questioned whether horseplayers would support a track in the hinterlands with their betting dollars against prime time rivals have been found guilty as charged.

There is one important takeaway for the industry, that no matter which branch of the sport practitioners engage in they need to learn this: Horseplayers Matter.

Whether the opening weekend momentum can be sustained over time is going to keep the jury out for quite some time, which is something that the Shakopee, Minnesota track has pledged to give it.

Canterbury’s bold decision to lower takeout to 15% in the straight pools and 18% on all exotics was well received by racing and social media alike. Sunday’s program is the fifth of a 69-day race meet.

The aim, of course, is prove once again that lower takeout rates will stimulate betting volume so that at worst the experiment would prove revenue-neutral at the bottom line while at best it would increase profitability.

Takeout reductions have spiked handle everywhere it’s been implemented since the ‘70s. There’s no logical reason for it not to succeed again, especially given that savvy present-day horseplayers have become price sensitive, knowing the simulcast market gives them options.

Shopping for value before the handicapping begins is mandatory since there are so few of us left, making it difficult for the horse-playing 99% to find an edge. Today’s loyal customer is better educated, and there’s more handicapping data available than ever before.

Given this new reality, Canterbury is supposed to show substantial gains and it will with player support. The Shakopee track lacks a national presence but horseplayers have lent their support for the reduced-take experiment. Once again there’s data proving that churn works.

Betting handle has increased and, on a percentage basis, increased dramatically, Saturday notwithstanding. The attendant publicity Canterbury has garnered, along with an instant decision to scuttle a higher takeout Jackpot bet—helped enable big gains on opening weekend, May 20.

Field size was moderate last weekend yet Canterbury posted increases of 34% for the Friday opener; 20% on Saturday despite Preakness competition, and a staggering 48% last Sunday. Canterbury races Friday nights and Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

There will be a Memorial Day program on Monday.

This weekend began well, too, with Friday posting a gain of 17% year over year. But on Saturday Canterbury got slammed. Bad weather and a sealed wet track against the sport’s biggest markets--most enjoying good weather—was too big a mountain to climb.

After scratches, Canterbury’s eight races Saturday averaged six starters, including four seven-horse fields. Three turf races were rescheduled to dirt and handle for the day was only $325,894. In all, 48 runners competed for total purses worth $148,500.

Resultantly, handle was down a whopping 47% compared to 2015, but four out of five days ain’t bad, good for an overall boost of 9.1% for the first five days of racing.

I have looked at the past performances for the highest-pursed races for five days and bet from $10 to $24 at each session, Preakness day notwithstanding. On balance, the racing has been good and form held well.

(Thanks to Foolhardy [$26.20], we’re ahead for Canterbury [see Friday’s Feature Race Analysis page]. And I will continue to support the track that wants to help support me).

Looking back, the two stakes offered opening weekend, the 10000 Lakes Friday night and the Paul Bunyan Sunday afternoon, were good, competitive events on paper and played that way. Those races, filled with some nice runners, were quite handicappable.

Admittedly, the dirt track was a little speed crazy opening weekend--albeit not as much as Woodbine’s was Monday for its special Victoria Day program.

I have no experience as to whether this bias trend will prevail but certainly we saw nothing that proved extraordinary. Speed, especially tactical pressers, have historically done well at the Minnesota track on both dirt and turf, around one turn or two.

Two-turn turf routes give stout closers their best chances to win, but do try to avoid double-digit outside posts on either surface whenever possible.

The turf races play like they do at most other venues, although there aren’t many last-to-first dynamics at longer distances like those seen most everywhere else. Generally, it’s always best to think speed, the universal bias.

Preakness Sets All-Time Records in Handle and Attendance

The good karma surrounding Maryland racing this year, due mostly to major improvements made at Laurel Park for the winter meet, might, in the final analysis, be helping downtrodden Pimlico.

Attendance records reportedly were broken for both the Black-Eyed Susan and Preakness day programs and the second jewel of the Triple Crown turned out be an aesthetic success despite dreary weather and the defeat of super gallant Nyquist.

Total handle on the 14-race Preakness program, featuring seven other stakes, was a record $94,127,434, eclipsing the previous mark of $91,028,704 set 11 years ago. Total handle was up 10.8 percent year over year, with attendance up 2.5 percent.

Alas, the hangover effect from American Pharoah’s Triple Crown accomplishments turned out to be a good thing. While ratings were spotty for this year’s Derby, the undefeated Triple Crown-eligible Nyquist attracted a half-million more viewers than Pharoah did last year.

NBC’s coverage averaged 9.4 million viewers, 6% more than last year’s 8.9 million. The 9.4 million viewers plateau was 200,000 fewer than California Chrome’s two years ago and Oxbow’s 9.7 million mark the year before that. Numbers like this have not been seen since the early 2000s.

Additionally, over 3.1 million minutes of coverage were streamed live on the Internet, a gain of 221% over 2015, with a record 115,000 unique users.

Written by John Pricci

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Sunday, May 22, 2016

Record-Breaking Preakness Weekend: Saga of Triumph and Tragedy

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL., May 23, 2016—Just got to love Thoroughbred racing’s Classics: All of it; the pomp, circumstances and performances; animals giving their all, expert horsemanship and, of course, controversy. What’s racing without it?

First the bad news: Leave it to the Drudge Report and other major media outlets, even in my local television market, to lead their Preakness coverage with the two equine fatalities that occurred early Preakness day.

The tagline, by the way, was “Exaggerator won the Preakness denying Nyquist his bid for the Triple Crown.”

What did I expect? What should the industry expect when it gives its horsemen’s groups power to lord over everything, especially leading the opposition to national standardized medication rules and independent, federal oversight of testing procedures?

Before hearing from the Excuse 101 department, this is not about a government takeover.

It’s about the Feds appointing an independent agency, such as the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, to mandate standardized medications thresholds and uniform, meaningful sanctions without scape-goating tactics.

It’s about rules and sanctions being administered by appointed board regulators; USADA board members acting in concert with industry appointed regulators.

Why should change come? Because optics matter and so that when equine deaths occur, it would be a portion of big-event racing coverage, not its lead media item.

Another reason is so that PETA officials lodge its concerns with government appointed officials and not take shots at the industry as it did upon learning of the incidents:

“In today's racing drug culture,” said one PETA official, “at least three horses are dying every day on U.S. tracks. The foolish use of muscle relaxants, anti-inflammatory drugs and other [raceday] medications must end now."

Racing’s practitioners, horseplayers and fans realize that accidents are, and always will be, an unfortunate part of the game. All must recognize that many “accidents” can be avoided, except for bad steps and apparent cardiac arrest.

The death of gelded nine-year-old Homeboykris, a former Champagne Stakes winner, from an apparent coronary after winning the Preakness day opener could have been the result of many factors, including an adverse reaction to medication, legal or otherwise.

Owned by Barbaro’s connections, painfully aware of what happened on Preakness day a decade ago, Pramedya took an apparent a bad step on a wet but safe turf course. Too bad she had to suffer a tragic end on one of the few days the whole world watches, as ironic as it is heartbreaking.

Thrown heavily, jockey Daniel Centeno was “fortunate” to suffer a broken right clavicle, but an injury that will keep him on the ground for six to eight weeks.

Great Horsemanship on Display at Preakness

Another element to consider in light of fatalities is how racing’s “drug culture” can blur some of the great horsemanship on display not only at Pimlico Saturday but available in some measure every day at every Thoroughbred venue throughout the U.S.

Nyquist no longer is perfect, but it’s highly likely that Nyquist would not have achieved as much as he has if trainer Doug O’Neill weren’t calling the shots.

O’Neill’s somewhat unorthodox interval-training methodology is more old school than original but it’s to his credit that he recognized exactly what his horse needed for peak performance.

“Nyquist had such a strong campaign,” O’Neill said on a recent NTRA Preakness teleconference.

“I had to nurse him through it. I learned that when you hit a fitness plateau you’ve got to give them rest. You need a good grasp as horses as individuals--feed tub in the morning, winning his races; it’s working.”

And it still is. All that Nyquist lost yesterday was a horse race, and its welcome news that the Preakness-vanquished Derby winner will continue on to New York, according to a report from Pimlico Sunday morning. He is slated to ship Monday morning.

For handicappers looking forward to the champion’s test, it wasn’t pedigree that prevented Nyquist form remaining undefeated; it was a toxic, pressured pace which allowed uber classy, mud-loving Exaggerator to pounce on Nyquist at headstretch.

The Derby winner never had a chance to exhale in Baltimore, unlike an apparently anxious Mario Gutierrez did soon after setting foot on the sloppy surface for the post parade as if he knew what was coming--coming at him in waves.

A Poor Man's Affirmed-Alydar

O’Neill also said something else on the NTRA call in reference to main rival Exaggerator. “Keith [Desormeaux] is a super competitive guy. What they have done with that horse is brilliant.”

Like O’Neill, Desormeaux knows his horse. It wasn’t long after the Derby that Desormeaux referenced Exaggerator’s recuperative powers. “There’s not much you can do in two weeks fitness-wise. I just wanted to keep him happy and fresh,” said Desormeaux pre-race.

On Sunday morning he reiterated the message: “I’ve been preaching about my horse’s recuperative powers. He rests, he eats well, and 24 hours later he’s full of energy.” This augurs well for the Belmont, that and the way he looked post-race.

As Desormeaux said on national TV afterward. “It’s three weeks to the Belmont; we’ll be there with bells on.”

While Exaggerator legitimately turned the duel into a real rivalry, he did so on his preferred wet footing--a 3-1/2 length tour-de-force despite idling in deep stretch--but the scoreboard still reads Nyquist 4-Exaggerator 1.

Wet or dry, we’ll wager that this classic-looking will continue to narrow his rival’s advantage.

What Dead Rail; Kent Knows the Best Way Home

While the wet Pimlico surface was muddy and sealed throughout the day, the rain that fell nearing Preakness post helped level the playing field for all. Horses running on the rail through the stretch tired throughout the day in race after race.

But late showers rendered the track sloppy so that no particular path held an advantage. Kent later would tell his brother, who was concerned about the inside, that he tested it in pre-race warmups and found the rail to be no worse than the rest of the surface.

And what ostensibly appeared to be a premature move was actually perfectly timed. In the end, Nyquist, challenged throughout on both sides through very fast early fractions, Desormeaux pounced on Nyquist just as the favorite’s challengers tired.

What was encouraging for Nyquist fans is that once Gutierrez--who may or may not have had an opportunity to try Plan B and back off Uncle Lino as the pair entered the backstretch--angled Nyquist outside his rival in midstretch.

Nyquist re-rallied briefly but the pace had taken a toll. He was unable withstand the game late run of another mud-lark, Cherry Wine, for the place.

"3-5" Stradavari Disappoints

Making only his fourth lifetime start, Stradavari ran on well for fourth but certainly didn’t look the part of an odds-on favorite. We’re being facetious here, but once again racing is the embarrassed victim of age-old technology, human error, or simple rule-breaking.

There has been no official explanation of what happened during advance Preakness wagering. Apparently, no one has found an answer or hasn’t had enough time to conjure up an excuse.

Early Preakness morning, TVG posted advance-betting odds for the Preakness and all appeared routine. At the time, the two favorites were very close in odds and Stradavari was a clear cut if distant third choice.

At approximately 12:20 pm, an announcement was made that one bettor at Laurel apparently wagered $80,000 to win on Stradavari. From memory, Nyquist resultantly went up to about 2-1 and Exaggerator was 7-2. The rest were double digits-to-1.

At about 3 p.m. Stradavari’s odds had drifted up to 3-2 while Nyquist ticked down to 8-5.

But the next time we noted the odds an hour or so later, the prices posted approximated the off odds, those prices holding through the final hour of wagering: 3-5 on the favorite, 5-2 on the second choice, and 8-1 on Stradavari.

Though possible, it’s highly improbable for the final odds to change so dramatically again had the $80,000 wager not been canceled.

Some tracks such as New York’s places time restrictions on cancellations. Many have a rule that once a bettor leaves the window, he owns the ticket. In light of nine-figure handle totals, horseplayers are owed a clear explanation.

An expected phone call from an official to explain what occurred was not forthcoming.

Future Hall of Famer?

In juxtaposition to Homeboykris—winning his 14th race in 63 career starts--is legendary 10-year-old Ben’s Cat. On Friday, “the Cat” made a magical final-strides surge between rivals to win his fifth Jim McKay Turf Sprint, career victory 32 from 55 lifetime starts. He’s earned $2.54 million in the hardest way possible for Hall of Famer King Leatherbury.

The 83-year-old was asked after the race how he keeps Ben’s Cat going: “To tell you the truth, he’s the one who keeps me going.” Only in racing will you find such stories.

Ben’s Cat is four victories shy of another legendary gelding, the great John Henry. Whether this old boy reaches or surpasses that milestone should be immaterial. Ben’s Cat is a great horse, deserving of his own plaque on Union Avenue.

Written by John Pricci

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